At 42, Ryan Malone is still a hockey player.
He’s just not an NHL player anymore.
The power forward’s final games in the NHL came early in the 2014 season with the New York Rangers.
But he never fully got the game out of his system.
That’s what led the Upper St. Clair native to join the new 3ICE league.
“Just a chance to play hockey again,” Malone said by phone. “It was pretty simple for me. Having older boys now, 14 and 12, and I have two (2-year-old) girls, so they can see dad do his thing.”
3ICE is the brainchild of another Upper St. Clair product, EJ Johnston, the son of long-time Pittsburgh Penguins executive Eddie Johnston.
Essentially, it’s just three-on-three hockey, much like the NHL employs for overtime periods in regular-season games.
Johnston, who serves as 3ICE’s chief executive officer, offers a more vivid description of the league.
“Our tagline is the ‘best part of hockey,’” Johnston boasts. “I think we’ve got a better version of the game. It’s just so fun.”
That fun will be on display Saturday at PPG Paints Arena when the league — which is more similar to a touring entity like the PGA or NASCAR — rolls into Pittsburgh for the sixth week of its inaugural season. Seats can be purchased through Ticketmaster.
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For Johnston, who has an extensive resume in television production and media sales, the seed for what eventually became 3ICE was planted at a Penguins prospect development camp in Cranberry a few years ago.
“I’m sitting there with (former Penguins executive) Billy Guerin and my dad and (former Penguins general managers Craig Patrick and Jim Rutherford) and the whole scouting staff,” Johnston said. “I’m at UPMC (Lemieux Sports Complex), and I’m watching these unknown guys light it up in front of a packed house with about 1,200 people. And they’re oohing and ahhing, and it’s just great hockey. People are standing up and sitting down and clapping.
“Went home that night, I said, ‘Dad, there’s a business here. There’s an unbelievable game to be built out of this, and I think it would be incredible TV.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I agree.’ ”
Johnston applied his television credentials in formulating a plan for a league.
“Took about a month, I wrote the business model, I spent the next year poking holes in it with people like Bryan Trottier, Bobby Orr, friends at the NBA and other sports leagues, television sports executives, players, agents, sponsors, ad agencies to make sure I wasn’t imagining something there,” he said. “After about a year, I knew I had something.”
3ICE | Getty Images
Forward Samson Mahbod Team Carbonneau scores a goal against goaltender Parker Milner of Team Trottier during 3ICE’s Week Five at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont. on saturday.
What is there currently is a little different than what you might see in a regular-season NHL overtime period.
Most notably, there is the hockey equivalent of a backcourt violation in basketball. Players can’t retreat to their defensive zone to reload and start a new offensive rush.
Other differences include no power-play opportunities (just penalty shots), goaltenders are allowed to play the puck without restrictions and pucks that hit protective netting remain in play.
As for the format, it’s basically a tournament every weekend with six teams composed of six skaters and a goaltender. There is a first round with three games, a semifinal and a final. Each game consists of two eight-minute periods. In the event of a tie, shootouts determine a winner.
While the league is designed to showcase offensive creativity, there are earned efforts to play defense.
“Ultimately, if you’re giving up those breakaways or two-on-ones, giving them four or five chances a game, they’re going to end up in the back of your net most of the time,” Malone said. “It doesn’t matter who the goals are. … There’s only three (skaters) out there. If you can limit those quality chances, that’s the big thing. You have to try to keep them on the perimeter a little bit more.”
The format took some time to get used to for the players.
“That first week, you didn’t really expect how to play or the flow of games,” Malone said. “The more you see these weeks go by, the guys get accustomed to that pace and know when to pick your spots. You need some big saves in there and bury your chances.”
The biggest names are the coaches. Former Penguins and members of the Hockey Hall of Fame such as Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy and Trottier are among those on the benches. And Patrick serves as league commissioner.
The players are a motley crew of former NHLers, including ex-Penguins such as forwards Chris Conner, Bobby Farnham, Jeff Taffe and Malone, as well as minor leaguers or younger players who could earn a contract with a North American league — including the NHL — by being showcased on 3ICE’s platforms.
The league’s leading scorer currently is former Wheeling Nailers forward Brandon Hawkins, who has 29 points (16 goals, 13 assists). He currently has 3ICE’s “Golden Helmet” and wears it during games as the league’s top offensive producer, a practice common in Europe.
Hawkins just claimed possession of the helmet from forward Kevin Fitzgerald.
“(Fitzgerald is) a 25-year-old kid out of St. Cloud State,” Johnston said. “He’s going to get a look. He’s going to get a (professional tryout contract), or he’s going to get signed up for the (American Hockey League) or a European league. I know that agents are starting to ask about him. They’re calling some of our on-air talent. They’re calling some of our coaches. They’re asking, ‘Do I have to give this guy a look?’ ”
Getting people to look at the league is part of 3ICE’s mission, as well. And establishing a presence on social media platforms is a major component of that pursuit.
As Johnston explains it, 3ICE isn’t just a sports entity.
“We like to say we’re a phone-first media company in the shape of a hockey league,” Johnston said. We’re phone first. We want highlight-reel clips, short format. We’ve got partnerships in place with great networks and they, of course, carry us to the masses. But you can have a relationship with (social media influencers) like Pavel Barber or Zac Bell. They put something out, and you get 300,000 people retweeting that stuff.
“We had that Brandon Hawkins goal and Pavel Barber publishes it, and he’s got 800,000 folks across his Instagram (account) alone. You’re talking about a half-million people can see something that he puts out if he pumps it out. … That kind of stuff getting pushed out has a massive, massive opportunity.
“That’s where the eyeballs are. We know that’s where our fan base is. Them sharing this for us — because they’re excited about it — is really our model. It’s been built in since Day 1.”
Legacy media is vital, as well.
The league’s regular-season games are broadcast on CBS Sports Network, and its championship weekend will be on CBS on Aug. 20.
Murrysville native Steve Mears and Bob Errey, the Penguins play-by-play announcer and color commentator on AT&T Sportsnet, serve the same roles for 3ICE.
Outside the United States, the league is carried on TSN, RDS in Canada and ESPN International for more than 180 other countries.
“It’s not just credibility, but it’s also eyeballs,” Johnston said of having a television presence. “We’re the second-biggest hockey league in the world from a television footprint standpoint.”
The league also has some significant sponsorships ranging from major companies such as Dunkin’ and KeyBank to hockey-specific entities like equipment providers Warrior and Bladetech.
“These are NHL sponsors,” Johnston said. “We got to show they believe in us in our first year. It’s massive for us. We know we’re overdelivering for these guys. Having those big brands on board, it’s a statement. It shows that we can take big brands with expert markers behind and big dollars and make it worth their while. That implicit message really helps grow our business. You need fans, and you need sponsors to grow your business.”
3ICE | Getty Images
EJ Johnston, a native of Upper St. Clair, is the CEO of 3ICE.
All of that allows 3ICE to dish out significant payments to players based on their on-ice success.
In addition to weekly financial awards, members of the team that wins the championship championship can claim up to $127,000.
“I was lucky enough to make a living out of (the NHL),” said Malone, who spent 11 seasons with the Penguins, Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning. “So the money wasn’t really an attraction for me. But 99% of the other guys who didn’t play in the NHL or are just getting out of college, they’re getting some of the biggest checks they’ve ever seen. Some of these guys go over to Europe and play, and they might only make $60,000. You might be able to triple that in nine weekends. That is unbelievable.”
Johnston certainly believes in the potential of 3ICE. He’ll have an opportunity to showcase his creation in his hometown this weekend.
“For me, it’s a treat, to be able to do something in my hometown,” Johnston said. “I’m a Penn State (graduate), I grew up in Upper St. Claire. I consider myself a Pittsburgher. One of their own has created something that I believe is special. I think the world is taking notice now.
“It’s a nice win for me on many levels.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .